Amusements and Entertainment

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[There is a significant shift in perspective between the two articles below; read them in the context of their time.]

1953 Article

With their emphasis upon a life of piety, not conformed to the standards of a sinful society, and upon constant Christian discipleship, Mennonites have throughout their history been known for their disapproval of "worldly amusements." Heinrich Bullinger, successor to Zwingli in Zurich, said of the Anabaptists, "They denounced covetousness, pride, profanity, the lewd conversation and immorality of the world, drinking and gluttony." Other writers of this early period add their witness to the observation that these Anabaptists were not guilty of intemperate eating and drinking but in contrast lived irreproachably among their neighbors, who joined in testifying to the high character of these unusual persons in their society.

That the standards of the average Mennonite regarding acceptable forms of amusements were strict even in the 19th and 20th centuries is proved by the fact that since 1865 more than 120 conference resolutions defining and condemning worldly amusements were passed by the various (Old) Mennonite district conferences. Illustration of the strict position of this church was Point X in a list of standards drawn up by the General Problems Committee of the Mennonite General Conference by order of the conference session of 1939. Point X on "Worldly Amusements" declared, "These are as natural for worldlings as the joy of the Lord is for Christians. . . . All the carnal amusements that appeal to the gratification of the flesh; such as theaters, moving picture shows, circuses, gambling resorts, dances, card playing, popular swimming resorts, and such like are destructive to spiritual life, and should therefore be scrupulously avoided by all Christian people."

Although varying degrees of prohibitions were endorsed by the majority opinion of the various American Mennonite groups, it is safe to say that in the mid-20th century all branches opposed drinking of alcoholic beverages, dancing, gambling, card playing, and indiscriminate attendance at the theater and motion pictures. More strict groups opposed in addition participation in county and state fairs, where much undesirable entertainment was mixed with the educational features; attendance at commercialized athletic activities; participation in and attendance of high-school plays and operettas; and participation in bands and orchestras. Some forbade the use of the radio and television.

The Mennonites of Europe in all countries in their earlier history held similar high standards and practiced restrictions on "worldly amusements" including the theater, the dance, cards, etc. This continued to be true throughout the history of the Mennonites in Russia, Switzerland, and France to the 1950s. Some Dutch Mennonite groups, such as the Waterlanders, soon gave up their opposition to the theater. Joost van den Vondel, the famous writer of tragedies, was a deacon of the Amsterdam Waterlander Church 1616-1620, and another member of the same church, Jan Theunis, kept a kind of amusement place, a combination of museum, theater, and wineshop, which was frequented by many Mennonites. At the end of the 17th century the Lamists took full part in the Amsterdam amusements, and at the end of the 18th century the Dutch Mennonites—with only a few exceptions—had fully given up their opposition to the theater. In Northwest Germany, the opposition to the theater disappeared in the 19th century. In West Prussia and the Palatinate a similar gradual change, not complete, took place in the 20th century. In the Badischer Verband churches the ban on the theater, etc., was still maintained in the 1950s. (See Dramatic Arts)

In some very conservative Mennonite groups in America, where young people customarily joined the church at about the age of marriage or in their late teens, strict prohibitions as to amusements were not imposed before baptism. In some of these groups certain types of folk dancing were still practiced among the young people at their "parties."

That Mennonites throughout their four centuries when not subjected to fierce persecution received their share of joy in living no one who knows their history or has observed them closely would deny. Observers have frequently remarked on the poise, serenity, and peace of mind written clearly into the countenances of these people. Possessing an inner peace, the typical Mennonite did not find it necessary to drug a restless spirit by resorting to sensual and ever more exciting amusements.

Mennonites have, however, obtained recreational values from their regular activities. Not separating life into the sacred and secular, they found religious and spiritual significance and satisfaction in their daily tasks. Having developed a sense of community and brotherhood, through mutual aid they learned how to work and share together as they fellowshiped. Raising a barn for a neighbor, plowing the fields of a sick brother, joining in a quilting party, canning meat for foreign relief, preparing food and clothing for the needy in the city and rural missions, and many other brotherhood activities brought young and old together in work, play, and worship. In the mid-20th century the social life of the more seriously minded young people to an increasing degree revolved around service projects. There was, however, also evidence among some groups that young people tended to participate increasingly in general secular amusements and to patronize various forms of semi-commercialized recreation, such as school athletics, theaters, and motion pictures.

There have always been special occasions, however, when more than the usual emphasis was placed upon social activity. Weddings, singings, picnics, holiday programs, visits by distant friends or relatives, traveling, public sales, family reunions, brotherhood gatherings, and other events brought Mennonites together where they gave expression to both their serious and their carefree attitudes in a psychologically satisfying manner. -- Melvin Gingerich

1990 Update

In the first half of the 20th century, many Mennonites condemned various types of worldly amusements -- card playing; dancing; television; attendance at fairs, farm shows, political rallies, theaters, circuses, motion pictures, carnivals, public sporting events; participation in bowling, roller skating, and gambling; and swimming at public beaches. Restrictions on these activities provided an effective means of limiting social interaction with the larger society, thus preserving a rural and separatist religious subculture (nonconformity). The word amusement had a pejorative ring in the ears of conservative Mennonites, for it contradicted the strong Mennonite work ethic, and implied pleasure-seeking, idleness, vanity waste, and worldliness. Many of the activities listed above continued to be forbidden by Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups in the 1980s. Amusements permitted by these more conservative groups are typically informal, noncommercial, familial, and local in orientation, e.g., baseball and volleyball played in a pasture, skating and sledding on the family farm, as well as barn dances, singings, and table games. Members of Old Order groups may occasionally go on a deep-sea fishing trip, visit a public zoo, or go camping, but the bulk of their entertainment revolves around home, church, and neighborhood.

The encounter with modernity transformed the entertainment patterns of the major Mennonite denominations in the last half of the 20th century. As they exchanged their plows for professions and careers in public life, Mennonites began to enjoy the forms of amusement and entertainment typical of modern culture. In fact, the term amusement has largely slipped from the vocabulary of mainstream Mennonite groups.

Major surveys were taken of five North American Mennonite denominations in 1972 and 1989. The number of respondents who felt drinking alcoholic beverages, social dancing and gambling were "always wrong" decreased significantly between those years. (50% to 43% for drinking; 43% to 21% for dancing; and 75% to 61% for gambling. On the other hand there was increased resistance to smoking tobacco or marijuana. (64% to 69% for tobacco; 87% to 92% for marijuana.

The type of entertainment embraced by Mennonites varies according to the region of the country and the religious tradition of their particular group. The following forms of entertainment are widely accepted by many Mennonites today: television, motion pictures, theater (dramatic arts), fairs, symphony concerts, art shows, farm shows, bowling, pool (billiards), public sporting events, golfing, international travel, tours, cruises, camping, hunting, fishing, surfing, tennis, and hockey, to name just a few. Family vacations have become an annual ritual in most Mennonite families, including those that are still farming. Eating in public restaurants, some of which are Mennonite-owned, became a fashionable pastime in the 1970s. Table games, family reunions, and television viewing are important forms of family-based entertainment. Local congregations often sponsor sports teams, camping trips, and other forms of leisure activities for their members.

For the most part, Mennonite patterns of entertainment differ little from the surrounding culture. Alcohol and drug use, gambling, and participation in lotteries are discouraged, though increasing numbers of Mennonites participate. Some Canadian Mennonite wedding receptions in the 1990s include dancing and alcohol, depending on the community patterns. Mennonite high schools generally do not have football teams nor do they sponsor dances. Although few restrictions remain in the main Mennonite groups, the cost of certain activities, as well as the content of television programs, movies, and other forms of entertainment touted by popular culture, are ethical concerns in many congregations. -- Donald B. Kraybill


"Bowling: Right or Wrong." Salunga Pa.: Bishop Board of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, 1962, pamphlet.

Cline, Pauline. "Why Worldly Amusements do not Amuse the Christian. "Gospel Herald (15 October 1942): 618.

Derstine, C. F. "Popular Amusements: Their Danger. Christian Monitor (July 1918): 581-82.

Gingerich, Melvin. The Mennonites in Iowa. Iowa City: State Historical Society, 1939: 170-71, 234-35 240-45 316-17.

Hess, Henry H. "Questionable Amusements. Youth's Christian Companion (11 February 1951: 471-72.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975: 122-129.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991: 192-194.

Lehman, James O. Sonnenberg: a Haven and a Heritage. Kidron, Ohio: Kidron Community Council, 1969: 288-89.

Miller, Ella May. "Sick Movies and Dancing. "Gospel Herald (21 May 1968: 454.

Siegrist, Joanne Hess. "Friendship Gatherings of Lancaster Mennonite Women, 1890-1950." Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 11 (April 1988): 2-15.

Author(s) Melvin Gingerich
Donald B. Kraybill
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Gingerich, Melvin and Donald B. Kraybill. "Amusements and Entertainment." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 Mar 2019.

APA style

Gingerich, Melvin and Donald B. Kraybill. (1989). Amusements and Entertainment. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 March 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 112-113, v. 5, p. 23. All rights reserved.

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